Jeffrey Sachs: The Price of Civilization

(Cecile’s note:  In this work, Jeffrey Sachs promotes the idea of moral and civic virtue in ways that are compassionate and inclusive.)

Excerpt The Price Of Civilization–Chapter 1: Diagnosing America’s Economic Crisis

A Crisis of Values

At the root of America’s economic crisis lies a moral crisis: the decline of civic virtue among America’s political and economic elite. A society of markets, laws, and elections is not enough if the rich and powerful fail to behave with respect, honesty, and compassion toward the rest of society and toward the world. America has developed the world’s most competitive market society but has squandered its civic virtue along the way. Without restoring an ethos of social responsibility, there can be no meaningful and sustained economic recovery….

The crisis, I will argue, developed gradually over the course of several decades. We are not facing a short-term business cycle downturn, but the working out of long-term social, political, and economic trends. The crisis, in many ways, is the culmination of an era-the baby boomer era-rather than of particular policies or presidents. It is also a bipartisan affair: both Democrats and Republicans have played their part in deepening the crisis…..

The first two years of the Obama presidency show that our economic and political failings are deeper than that of a particular president. Like many Americans, I looked to Barack Obama as the hope for a break through. Change was on the way, or so we hoped; yet there has been far more continuity than change….

The American economy increasingly serves only a narrow part of society, and America’s national politics has failed to put the country back on track through honest, open, and transparent problem solving. Too many of America’s elites-among the super-rich, the CEOs, and many of my colleagues in academia-have abandoned a commitment to social responsibility. They chase wealth and power, the rest of society be damned.

We need to re-conceive the idea of a good society in the early twenty-first century and to find a creative path toward it. Most important, we need to be ready to pay the price of civilization through multiple acts of good citizenship: bearing our fair share of taxes, educating ourselves deeply about society’s needs, acting as vigilant stewards for future generations, and remembering that compassion is the glue that holds society together. I would suggest that a majority of the public understands this challenge and accepts it. During my research for this book, I became reacquainted with my fellow Americans, not only through countless discussions but also through hundreds of opinion surveys on, and studies of, American values. I was delighted with what I found. Americans are very different from the ways the elites and the media pundits want us to see ourselves. The American people are generally broad-minded, moderate, and generous. These are not the images of Americans we see on television or the adjectives that come to mind when we think of America’s rich and powerful elite. But America’s political institutions have broken down, so that the broad public no longer holds these elites to account. And alas, the breakdown of politics also implicates the broad public. American society is too deeply distracted by our media-drenched consumerism to maintain the habits of effective citizenship.

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